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Will Mobile Games Sweep the Nation?
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Coming Soon to a Miniscule Screen Near You

The current crop of games isn't bad, but it probably isn't enough to drive a mobile-gaming frenzy. But as navigation and devices improve, we can start to expect PalmOS games and eventually iPaq games to begin making their way onto more powerful phones.



Gameloft, for example, demonstrated a beautiful-looking game called Siberian Strike, where you fly a biplane through various missions. Since you cannot detect the hit of two buttons at once on most handsets, the plane constantly fires, so the player's main focus is on offensive and defensive movement.

Siberian Strike
Siberian Strike

Also demo'd was Tomb Raider, adopted for the mobile phone by IdeaWorks. The 3-D engine lets you navigate Lara Croft through the same caverns and temples as the original game, and you will be able to download new levels wirelessly.

Tomb Raider
Tomb Raider

Another highly innovative game to watch for is Dance Queen, presented by nGame. This game allows you move an animated character to music by pressing your keypad, like a thumb-size version of the "Dance Dance Revolution" arcade game.

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SMS Games and More

Another interesting category is SMS games. SMS, or mobile messaging, is amazingly popular in Europe and Asia. It is also catching on in the United States, especially among teenagers.

Some companies have created games that are completely playable through SMS. For example, you can play a game of hangman by guessing a letter and sending it to the hangman server. The server will respond with a message showing you whether that letter helps solve the word. If not, you'll be shown an ASCII version of the hangman.

There are also a wide variety of SMS casino games, adventure games, and even role-playing games. A popular Japanese SMS game involves fishing--you cast your lure and your phone eventually returns a message to you with either an empty hook or an exotic fish!

As more carriers begin to support the Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), these games will be able to include images, audio, or even small video clips.

More interestingly, many wireless networks implement some form of mobile positioning. As this feature becomes more accessible, a game can track exactly where a player is in the real world.

For example, It's Alive!, a company in Sweden, has a fascinating game called BotFighters. Players use a Web site to locate other players. They can then get out into the real word and attack other players by sending an SMS message while in range. Mobile positioning determines whether two players are actually close enough to fight.

Location-based games have extreme potential and they are the type of thing that can only be played on mobile devices. Until there are clear standards for how to handle positioning, though, such games can only be done in places like Sweden, where everyone in the country pretty much uses the same wireless network.

Smart Skins

Eric Engstrom, CEO of Wildseed, believes that companies that know games need to make games for phones--not telecommunications executives. "Today's phones are as powerful as the original GameBoy," he says. "But they just don't have good enough games, or good enough input devices." To address this, Wildseed has created "smart skins," including one that turns your phone into a device that looks like a console's game controller.

Wildseed is launching its first products for Kyocera's Delta-Two phone in early 2003, with each skin costing about $20.

Wildseed Skin for Kyocera Delta-Two
Wildseed Skin for Kyocera's Delta-Two Phone

Give the People What They Want

The summit attendees had high hopes. Weary from dot-com craziness and leery of hype, panelists discussed lessons learned and showcased their newest stuff. Everyone has reason to give it a shot: Hardware makers want consumers to buy more powerful devices, carriers want consumers to use their services, and content creators want consumers to consume lots and lots of product.

But what do people want?

Some of the big questions are:

  • Would average people play real console-quality games on their mobile phones? Right now, people use their handhelds primarily for voice. Perhaps it makes more sense to just buy a dedicated, handheld gaming device such as the GameBoy Advance?
  • Is it feasible to make games for phones? Right now, people don't change their phones often and don't want to spend too much money on their handhelds. This means that there are a wide variety of devices out there, with many different capabilities. It can be hell to design for and support so many platforms.
  • Will people actually pay for games? And if so, how much? Will they want to subscribe to games, pay per download, or actually buy little cartridges?

My belief is that mobile games will be incredibly popular--but not the types of games we are used to. Gamers who want quick reactions, bloody 3-D monsters, and supercharged sound will always be disappointed by limited devices. But there's one thing mobile-phone games offer that even the highest-end consoles can't provide: they're always with you, and can be played anywhere. Games that support wireless devices are already drawing players into a level of immersion that has never before been experienced.

The right pieces aren't all in place yet. Games need to be easy to get to--go to one menu, press one button, and you're in. More importantly, devices need to be more "gamey"--color screens, the ability to press more than one button at a time, and better audio. And networks need to improve, with better bandwidth and latency.

Once all that happens, the nation will surely be swept away.

David Fox is launching a game company in New York City. He's also the author of numerous books and articles about cyberculture and technology.